I’m an Imposter: Understanding Imposter Syndrome
Hi, my name is Jen, and I’m an imposter.
Every so often (more times than I can count), self-doubt creeps in, and I realize I’m faking everything I’m doing. And then, I admit, I know what I’m doing and need to relax. Imposter syndrome is the internal psychological experience of feeling like a phony in some area of your life, despite any success you have achieved.
You might have imposter syndrome if you find yourself consistently experiencing self-doubt, even in areas where you typically excel. Imposter syndrome may feel like restlessness and nervousness and manifest as negative self-talk. Symptoms of anxiety and depression often accompany imposter syndrome. The term is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement but also links to perfectionism and the social context.
The Five Imposters
Based on Dr. Valerie Young’s (an expert on impostor syndrome and co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute) research, there are five primary types:
- The Perfectionist. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that, unless you were perfect, you could have done better. You feel like an imposter because your perfectionist traits make you assume that you’re not as good as others might think you are.
- The Expert. The expert feels like an imposter because they don’t know everything there is to know about a particular subject or topic, or they haven’t mastered every step in a process. Because there is more to learn, they don’t feel they’ve reached the rank of “expert.”
- The Natural Genius. In this imposter syndrome type, you may feel like a fraud simply because you don’t believe you are naturally intelligent or competent. If you don’t get something right the first time or it takes you longer to master a skill, you feel like an imposter.
- The Soloist. It’s also possible to feel like an imposter if you have to ask for help to reach a certain level or status. You question your competence or abilities since you needed help to get there.
- The Superperson. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that you must be the hardest worker or reach the highest levels of achievement possible and, if you don’t, you are a fraud.
Am I An Imposter?
Imposter syndrome can affect anyone — no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise. Initially, imposter syndrome was thought to apply primarily to high-achieving women. Still, since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced.
While impostor syndrome is not a recognized mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), it is relatively standard. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon at some point.
If you wonder whether you might have imposter syndrome, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you agonize over even the most minor mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
- Are you sensitive to even constructive criticism?
- Do you feel like you will inevitably be seen as a phony?
- Do you downplay your expertise, even in areas where you are more skilled than others?
If you often feel like you are a fraud or an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. The negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that often characterize imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life.
Impact of Imposter Syndrome
For some people, impostor syndrome can fuel motivation to achieve, but this usually comes at the cost of experiencing constant anxiety. For instance, you might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” nobody finds out you are a fraud. Eventually, stress worsens and may lead to depression. This creates a vicious cycle in which you think you only survived that class presentation because you stayed up all night rehearsing. Or you think you only got through that party or family gathering because you memorized details about all the guests, so you would always have ideas for small talk.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The thought still nags in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?” The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It’s as though you can’t internalize your experiences of success. This would make sense regarding social anxiety if you received early feedback that you were not good in social or performance situations. Your core beliefs about yourself are so strong that they don’t change, even when there is evidence to the contrary. The thought process is that if you do well, it must result from luck.
People who experience impostor syndrome tend not to talk about how they feel with anyone and struggle in silence, just like those with social anxiety disorder.
Examples of Imposter Syndrome
To better understand imposter syndrome, seeing its appearance in everyday life might be helpful. Here are a few examples of what it’s like to experience imposter syndrome:
- You’ve been working in a particular role for a couple of months. Yet, when people call you by your formal title, you feel like a fraud because you haven’t mastered that position.
- You’ve started your own business; however, you don’t like to promote yourself because you don’t have the same level of experience or expertise as others in your field, making you feel like a fraud.
- You’ve been nominated for an award, but you feel like an imposter at the recognition ceremony because you don’t feel that your achievements are good enough to warrant the nomination.
Imposter Syndrome vs. Discrimination
Feeling like an outsider isn’t necessarily a result of imposter syndrome. Sometimes, it can occur due to discrimination or exclusion due to systemic bias. With imposter syndrome, the feeling of being an outsider is caused by internal beliefs. With prejudice, the surface is caused by the actions of others.
To get past impostor syndrome, it helps to start asking yourself some hard questions. Here are a few to consider:
- What core beliefs do I hold about myself?
- Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?
- Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?
Taking Off The Mask
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To move past these feelings, you need to become comfortable confronting some of the deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. This exercise can be tricky because you might not even realize that you have them, but here are some techniques you can use:
- Share your feelings. Talk to other people about how you are feeling. Irrational beliefs tend to plague when they are hidden and not talked about.
- Focus on others. While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask them a question to bring them into the group. As you practice your skills, you will build confidence in your abilities.
- Assess your abilities. If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, then compare these with your self-assessment.
- Take baby steps. Don’t focus on doing things perfectly; do something reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. For example, offer an opinion or share your story in a group conversation.
- Question your thoughts. The question is whether your ideas are rational as you assess your abilities and take baby steps. Given everything you know, does it make sense to believe you are a fraud?
- Stop comparing. Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
- Use social media moderately. The overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inferiority. Try to portray an image on social media that doesn’t match who you are or is impossible to achieve. It will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.
- Stop fighting your emotions. Don’t fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. When you acknowledge these feelings, you can unravel the core beliefs holding you back.
- Refuse to let it hold you back. No matter how much you feel like you are a fraud or don’t belong, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be controlled.
Strategies to cope with imposter feelings include talking about what you are experiencing, questioning your negative thoughts, and avoiding comparing yourself to others.
Remember that if you feel like an impostor, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you attribute to luck. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished and be grateful for your achievements.
Don’t be held back by your fear of being found out. Instead, lean into that feeling and get to its roots. Let your guard down and allow others to see the real you. If you’ve done all these things and still feel like an impostor, which is holding you back, a mental health professional can help you overcome these feelings.
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1–800–662–4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.